I am a fierce advocate of wellbeing policies in the workplace and the need to make mental health a boardroom issue which is why the matter of mass job automation concerns me greatly. There is clearly a lot of upside to technology and how it can be used and developed for useful purposes, but there is obviously downside too.
This is an area that has the potential to devastate the mental wellbeing of our workforces. The obvious impact of AI and its threat is on the potential damage to status, normal routine and personal income. There have been countless arguments and counter-arguments in recent times, concerning the effect on global labour markets, whether warning about the perceived risk of mass unemployment or the perceived opportunity of new and challenging roles. Whichever outcome comes to pass, such change has already begun, and change, however exciting (or indeed, however worrying) is unsettling, such that senior managers need to be mindful of the very real anxiety generated by the ‘digital creep’.
When I suggest taking an ethical stance on the issue, I am placing the responsibility for workplace wellbeing affected by AI, on the shoulders of business owners and directors. After all, it is they who make the decisions about how and when to introduce change. I am not suggesting that businesses should compromise their growth and success by holding back change but I am calling for greater care about how AI is introduced/integrated and how the process of change is managed within an organisation.
AI and mental health in numbers
According to the latest statistics from the Health and Safety Executive, Mental health is already the biggest cause of disability in the workplace, with 12.5 million days lost every year at work because of anxiety, depression and stress. Add to that the fact that around 50% of current job roles are expected to be obsolete within a decade and the reality of the problem quickly becomes apparent.
One of the most impactful ways of reducing stress related to automation and changing work practices might be to offer honest information, practical guidance and retraining. Employers could be encouraged to plan AI integration in a controlled and ethical way that considers the bearing it will have on staff and their sense of purpose.
Sticking with the subject of AI and ethics, the Labour Party’s Tom Watson recently spoke about how a Labour government could use AI and automation to address inequality and improve working and living conditions.
The positive side of AI
Clearly, AI is not all bad news: far from it. Indeed, employers can utilise technology (including AI) to help their employees recognise the benefits of change, not least the removal of repetitive, time-consuming tasks. As a consequence, AI can make a job less tedious, leaving more time for creativity, assuming that there are other tasks to be undertaken. My appeal to ethical employers would be to start looking to create those more fulfilling jobs now so that staff can begin to acclimatise to new roles and ways of working. In my view, if AI is introduced before these creative, human-centric jobs exist, the risk of anxiety and depression remains significant.
Is the challenge too great for directors and business owners?
My big worry is that ethical automation is too big a task for many leaders. The pace of change that we are experiencing currently is rapid and the economy is such that businesses need to focus on keeping pace with their competitors and managing their bottom line.
For me, it is about having realistic strategies and ensuring proper training is in place for businesses to be as productive, as efficient and as sustainably profitable as possible. I think this is called “future-proofing”, a concept possibly undermined by its own definition.
I would be interested to hear from companies that have successfully developed a strategy for managing technological change and wellbeing. There will undoubtedly be pioneers in this area in the future and there may already be organisations that are leading the way in a field of employee mental health that is only going to become more important with time.